Sunset in the Andes.

For about a month Leonel and I had been talking about heading up to the Andes for a weekend. A friend of his, Carlos, who is a camping and trekking enthusiast, knew of a great spot just south of Santiago in the Cajón del Maipo where there were some termas, ornaturally heated springs, and a still decent amount of snowfall. The perfect blend of hot and cold.

After extending the invitation to a few other friends and trying three times to find a date that worked for everybody, we finally decided on the first weekend in October. It was a plan and I was keen. I had never touched snow before and I had been enchanted by hot springs on my trip to the south of Chile back in February.

A few days before the trip, Carlos sent around an email with a list of the things he recommended that we bring: hiking boots; thick trousers; thermal underwear and a spare pair; a beanie and a hat for the sun; sunglasses; a torch (ideally one that you could wear around your head without having to use your hands); a first aid kit; a sweat resistant shirt like a football jersey; a roll up or blow up mattress; gloves (for the cold); a thermos flask; an adequate sleeping bag; and trekking poles.

I felt massively unprepared. It was not the kind of one night camping trip that I had been imagining. Yes, I had gloves, sunglasses, a pair of thermal underwear, a beanie and a cap…and a football jersey. But that was about it. A first aid kit? Hardly. Trekking poles? No way.

The night before the trip the news got worse. On the way home from work in the car with Leonel, we chatted with Carlos on speaker phone. He spoke quickly, barely pausing for breath.

“A friend of mine was up in this spot last week and he said it was covered in snow,” he said. “It will be really important to bring good water proof shoes…”

I interrupted sheepishly: “Um…I only have sneakers.”

Carlos paused for what seemed like a long time before saying: “Bring a couple of spare socks.”

Leo and Carlos continued speaking in Spanish while I sat silently in the passenger seat trying not to think about cold feet. Unsuccessfully.

When Carlos hung up, I turned to Leonel, still thinking about cold feet. “Will we have to walk a long way to get to the campsite or will we be able to drive there?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “I’ve never been there.”

That night I dreamed about cold feet. When I woke up the next morning Leonel had already gone to work with the tent and blow up mattress in the back of the car. Around lunch time I packed my small backpack ’til it was bursting at the seams – literally – and then caught the bus in to meet Leo at the language institute where I also work during the week.

From there we were going to pick up René, a mutual friend and colleague, before driving to Leonel’s mother’s place where we had arranged to swap the motorised shopping trolley for a Jeep Compass, which Leonel’s sister, Judy, had kindly agreed to lend us. After that, it was on to Puente Alto in the deep south of Santiago where we would pick up Carlos and his friend Paola before heading up into the Andes.

The plan was to get up to the campsite some time between 4 and 5pm but like most plans in Chile it didn’t turn out that way.

When four o’clock came around, I was waiting with René in an underground shopping centre carpark while the others stocked up on last minute provisions. Inside the car it was hot and stuffy. Buried under a pair of jeans and long johns, my legs were sweating and my empty stomach rumbled. I did my best to avoid thinking about how uncomfortable it was – and how cold my feet were going to be in just a few hours. But there wasn’t much else to think about. We chatted idly and kept on waiting.

After 20 minutes or so, the others returned to the Jeep, armed with shopping bags of food and two brand new roll up mattresses. Somehow we managed to squeeze everything into the boot and begin the journey. At last.

A few kilometers later we broke free from the smog and congestion of Santiago and began winding our way through the valley. The road echoed the twists and turns of the gentle Maipo River and for most of the way, the traffic flowed freely. Out the window was a pleasant mix of native forests, charming timber guesthouses and apple orchards. We munched our way through a packet of paper chips and some crisp homemade empanadas bought at a roadised stall.

At the town of San Gabriel we passed through the unmanned police checkpoint where the sealed road ended and began to make our way along the 14km stretch of dirt road that leads up into the Andes. As we went along, the vegetation started to thin out, the ground became dustier and the snow got closer – closer than it had ever been to me before. Crossing over shallow creeks and bumping our way through the odd rocky patch, we drove past fields of pine trees, a cascading waterfall and a massive volcano with smoke lazily puffing from its snow capped cone.

Rounding a bend we drew level with a decent patch of snow that came right down to the road. “It’s your chance, Tim!” René called out. “There’s some snow”

Rushing out of the Jeep, I scooped it up the  white powder in my hands. It was old and dirty and it felt different to what I had expected. Much more like a 7/11 slurpee and much less squishy. I posed for photos and threw ‘snowballs’ with Leonel and René. My hands were cold but it was definitely worth it. And besides, my feet were still fine.

At about a quarter past six we pulled into the camping ground and drove up the hill to a small clearing cluttered with other 4WDs – as well as the odd brave hatchback – and tents. It wasn’t covered in snow but by now we were 2,000m above sea level and the wind was chilly. While we pulled out came the thick jackets and beanies, we paused to take in the view. A flock of wild horses grazed on a distant hill and a pair of condors swooped majestically through the sky.

The sun was starting set so we decided to use the remaining light to pitch our tents. When we had finished we pulled out our cameras and started snapping at the orange light reflecting of the speckled clouds and the snow white summits. Click. Click. Click. Click. Like the rest of the campers, we submerged our drinks in a large patch of snow to cool them down.

With the light fast disappearing, Carlos and Paola pulled out their head mounted torches and we fired up the two gas stoves. Fumbling around in the torchlight, we chopped up carrots, cauliflower and broccoli which we cooked with tomato paste and served with boiled pasta. It was a simple but hearty meal. Best of all it was warm. By now the wind had picked up and underneath the thick gloves, my hands were numb. Although they were dry, my feet were starting to get cold. My nose wasn’t faring well either. At least I had a scarf.

Sitting on fold-up camp chairs in the dark, we passed around a bottle of whiskey in a bid to ward off the cold. We laughed and told stories to the strains of our neighbours’ loud cumbia music. With the crescent moon smiling down on us, the night slowly ebbed away and I lost all contact with my toes.

The conversation turned to the termas. René couldn’t wait so he went off for a midnight dip in the hot springs. My toes wanted to join him but with the temperature hovering around 0°, the rest of my body didn’t want to strip down into boardshorts. So I stayed. When he returned half an hour later, René didn’t say anything but a huge smile was plastered across his face.

Eventually the cold got the better of me and I climbed into my sleeping bag, still wearing my thick jacket and two pears of socks. Not long afterwards, René and Leonel also clambered into the tent. My feet were totally numb by this stage and it was hard to sleep; René’s snoring didn’t help either. But somehow we all managed to doze off and have a fairly decent rest.

The next morning, we were woken by the sun’s rays. Inside the tent, it was warm and my feet had thawed out.

Skipping breakfast, we headed straight down to the termas. The air was crisp and clean and with the sun beating down on the exposed mountainside, it was almost warm. Hanging my towel up on a wooden railing, I dipped my toes into the water of the highest of the six pools. It was hot. Very hot. My feet turned pink. They were no longer cold.

On top of the world.

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